The Arkangel Shakespeare

The discovery of the Arkangel Shakespeare in my county library system led me back to Shakespeare much the way Aquinas lead me back to the church. By giving me a fresh new entry point to a work of transcendent truth and beauty, it re-introduced me to an old friend I’d ignored for too long. I began re-reading the plays, searching out various performances, reading biographies, and generally getting all obsessive the way I do on certain topics. (See also: Chaucer, beer, piano music, card games, bluegrass, silent film, and, well, a lot of other stuff.)

In honor of Shakespeare’s birthday today, I’m posting a piece I wrote about the Arkangel project, which Julie D. kindly published at Catholic Media Review about four years ago.

Barring some great discovery, we will never know for certain whether or not William Shakespeare was a faithful Protestant or a crypto-Catholic. The evidence for his Catholicism is extremely persuasive, and marshaled to great in effect in Clare Asquith’s Shadowplay. Asquith, however, overplays her hand by seeing coded Catholicism everywhere in Shakespeare’s work, ultimately undermining the simple facts that we do know.

Those plain facts should be enough: both Shakespeare’s parents and his daughter Susanna were Catholic; he moved in very Catholic circles in a dangerous time; he’s barely found in the records of Protestant Churches, even when attendance was mandatory; and his work shows many imprints of Catholic doctrine and largely lacks the anti-Papist invective common to his age. Given the confusion of the times, it may be likely that he remained sympathetic to the Old Faith without being a fervent recusant. We’re unlikely to ever have definitive proof one way or another.

One thing that’s never been in doubt, however, is his genius, and it’s on full and glorious display in one of the most ambitious projects in recording history. In the 1990s, television and film producer Bill Shepherd (husband of actress Eileen Atkins, who turns in some great performances on the set) spearheaded the complete recorded plays of Shakespeare. Over 3 years and at a cost of $3 million dollars, all thirty-eight plays, complete with some 600 speaking parts and including a wide range of sound effects and music, were produced under the direction of Clive Brill. From the loftiest heights of Shakespearean majesty (Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth) to the furthest and most forgotten corners (Pericles, Timon of Athens, Cymbeline), every word of every play was committed to tape with a full cast of seasoned Shakespearean talent and even a few marquee stars.

It would be impossible to cover the entire set in any depth, but some performers and plays stand out. The greatest actor to work on the Arkangel Shakespeare was Sir John Gielgud, who was 94 when he recorded his two roles. Gielgud plays the narrator-poet Gower in Pericles, as well as “Time, the Chorus” in The Winter’s Tale. His fading voice in the Time soliloquies lends a particularly bittersweet poetry to the role. The speeches are long, and Gielgud is clearly at the end of his life. His majestic voice has lost much of its plummy tone, but he still delivers note-perfect performances.

The London Independent was present when the Gielgud recording was made, and noted how Sir John (who was paid a single day-rate like everyone else) asked if could also do the Chorus in Henry V. He was turned down because Brian Cox had already done it. “Oh well, he’s very good,” replied Gielgud. Although Cox is probably still best known to moviegoers as the original Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter, he’s also one of the premiere Shakespeareans of his generation, and turns in solid voice work on several of the discs.

Fans of Shakespeare in Love, in which Joseph Fiennes played Shakespeare playing Romeo, will be delighted to hear Fiennes in a complete production as Romeo, opposite Maria Miles as Juliet. Like most Romeos, he’s too old for the role, but he does a respectable job, only rarely letting some of the play’s more sticky sentimentality overwhelm him. Just watch out for the kissing scenes. They sound like someone got his lips caught in a bottle.

Simon Russell Beale does excellent work as Hamlet, with a performance reminiscent of Kenneth Branagh’s in his own film of Hamlet. No complaint there, since Branagh managed to bring out the bitter humor of the Prince without getting lost in the world-weariness that can easily overtake the character. Beale handles the play’s many abrupt shifts in tone with finesse, and he’s matched by excellent performances all around. Shakespeare’s finest play is the jewel in the crown of the set, as it should be.

Cieran Hindes (best known as Caesar from the HBO miniseries Rome) tackles the incredible poetry of Antony and Cleopatra with remarkable skill, playing a passionate Antony to Estelle Kohler’s steamy Cleopatra. Hinds also turns in a touching performance in the role of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, handling the shimmering, mystical finale in whispered, delicate tones that would be impossible on a stage. For those who are less familiar with this, one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”, the Arkangel disc is a great place to start.

The unity of the recording project gave the producers an opportunity for some interesting casting choices. Julian Glover plays Bolingbroke/Henry IV and Jamie Glover plays Prince Hal/Henry V throughout the history plays (Richard III, Henry IV 1 & 2, and Henry V). The father/son team might seem like stunt casting, but both are veteran Shakespeareans who acquit themselves expertly throughout. Jamie, in particular, makes a convincing transformation from the callow youth of Henry IV Part 1 to the stirring hero of Henry V. Some other notable performances include Rupert Graves in the difficult role of Richard II, Adrian Lester as Antony in Julius Caesar, Trevor Peacock as Lear, and Bill Nighy as Antonio in Merchant of Venice.

Not every performance works, but given the vastness of the project it’s surprising to see how few duds there are. I’ve listened to Harriet Walter’s Lady Macbeth many times, and the performance still doesn’t sit right with me. Her voice seems to high and quirky to pull off the role. Everyone around her, however, does a fine job, including Hugh Ross as Macbeth and three pitch-perfect witches.

The low point of the series is what should have been one its centerpieces. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a mess. The fairy voices are digitally processed and hard to understand, the music is terrible, and the Caribbean accents for Tatania and Oberon are reminiscent of too many gimmicky modern productions. If you want to experiment, Dream is not the place to do it. Bad artistic choices abound, from sound effects, to casting, to music. Brill got most everything right elsewhere in the cannon, so he must have saved up all his mistakes for Dream.

That’s really the only dud in the batch, however. The production values are spot on throughout, with Brill and his engineers creating an incredible sonic setting for the plays. A full range of sound effects is brought to bear, and these help flesh out the action which you normally either see in performance or read in the stage directions of the text. Whether it’s the opening storm of The Tempest, the battlefield of Henry V, or the grotesque torments of Titus Andronicus, the effects play a crucial role in bringing the plays to life. All of the productions are fully scored, and while some of the musical choices are simply puzzling, most nicely compliment the drama.

The cumulative effect of the entire endeavor is astounding. Perhaps the most exciting part is getting to explore those lesser known gems that are never performed on stage or in film. (For example, Cymbeline, a fairy tale with an absurdly labyrinthine plot, is a fascinating find.) The series is a treasure unequalled and, for many, still undiscovered. The complete set is available for $360 on Amazon, with individual plays going for about $14 (for 2 discs) to $17 (for 3 discs). More information can be found at

The Arkangel Complete Shakespeare is a Globe of the mind, where you can disappear into the words and performances any time you like.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.